Williamstown, Mass. — Fifteen business executives have taken up residence at Williams College for a five-week session hailed as a ''rounding'' experience for them. Williams, the host institution for the Program in American Studies for Executives, is a liberal arts college founded here in 1793. Both college and town wear a pleasant demeanor compounded of confidence and diligence: Buildings and grounds are spacious, meticulously tended, amply shaded, and dramatically rimmed by peaks of the encircling Berkshires.
Most of the middle-management executives in attendance put both corporate and family responsibilities ''on hold'' except for the July 4th weekend, midway through the session. But one executive-student says he gets ''a packet of stuff'' from his office once a week which makes his participation more a strenuous juggling act than a reprieve from regular duties.
Members of this year's class come from General Electric, various telephone companies, Columbia Pictures, Georgia Koalin, IBM, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, and Polaroid. Six-day-a-week classes in liberal arts subjects, faculty-hosted dinners, sightseeing expeditions, and athletics are scheduled. In their ''free time,'' participants ponder what they are learning and how they can use it.
''But ours isn't a skills training program,'' emphasizes political science professor Fred Greene, director of the program for the past dozen years. ''Our purpose ever since the program started in 1956 has been to stretch people's thinking, to help seasoned executives - some of whose previous training as engineers or business managers was quite specialized - broaden their interests.
''We follow up and have learned that most of the participants in our program have stayed with the company that sent them, and most of them occupy higher positions in their companies than when they came. But we think the program's value lies in helping execs recognize the historical and cultural setting in which they operate, which is a good basis for self-development and executive judgment.''
An informal but heated critique of a classic French film viewed the preceding Thursday was under way when I joined seven of the students for Sunday night supper. We sat at round tables for eight in the baronial dining room of their college dormitory, Tyler Hall, one week into the 1983 program.
''When I see a movie, I don't go to get a message; I just want to be entertained,'' one was protesting.
A few minutes later, however, when the conversation turned to the motion picture ''Tootsie,'' this same person lauded the film: ''It made a social statement, it wasn't just for laughs.''
It became obvious to me next day, when I followed the class schedule of the participants, that mental gear-shifting is a program imperative.
An 8 a.m. lecture by economics professor Ralph Bradburd centered on economic fallacies in the doomsday predictions of the Club of Rome, which a decade ago predicted the rapidly approaching exhaustion of natural resources because of overpopulation and wasteful consumption.
In the next lecture, Professor Fred Greene summarized the events by which Eastern Europe came under Soviet domination and explained the foreign policy correlation between boundary-setting at the end of World War II and the American use of the atomic bomb.
After a brief return to Tyler for lunch, the executives assembled in their classroom for two more lectures: one on Puritanism, by Williams College president John W. Chandler, himself a former director of the program; the other on animal behavior, by psychology professor Tom McGill, who interspersed professorial comments between segments of a National Geographic film.
But the day did not end at this point (2:30). The shorts-clad scholars tripped over to Chapin Library of Rare Books, where they examined original documents of the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, General Nathaniel Greene's order for boats for Washington's crossing of the Delaware, and the longest George Washington manuscript extant: a complete list in his own hand of Virginia war bonds in which he had invested.
An executive-faculty baseball game having been scheduled for the following afternoon, most of the executives were next seen dutifully trotting off to athletic practice.
Originally the Williams Program was 100 percent male executives, but since 1970 women have also participated. Evon Murphy, an executive with Michigan Bell Telephone Company, is the only woman in this year's class.
Enrollment this year falls short of the normal 20 to 22 participants. Eighteen had signed up, but three bowed out at the last minute because of internal restructuring in their companies. Fred Greene hopes for a return to pre-recession enrollments next year.
''We'd like to have 24 execs here,'' he says, ''but not more. This program should stay small enough that everyone gets a chance to talk in the discussions. And then, if you get too many, it's just too cumbersome to move the group around.''
Other capsule liberal arts programs designed for executives are being held this summer at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Wabash College in Indiana, the Aspen Institute in Colorado, Stanford University in California, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia.